Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women
Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women
Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women
Susan Faludi 1991Introduction
Susan Faludi's bestselling book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, is a methodically researched and documented work challenging conventional wisdom about the American women's movement and women's gains in achieving equality in the latter years of the twentieth century. Faludi begins the book by looking carefully at then-current myths about the status of women, including the press reports that single career women are more likely to be depressed than other women, that professional women are leaving their jobs in droves to stay at home, and that single working women over age thirty have a small chance of ever getting married. Not only are these myths not true, says Faludi, but they are evidence of a society-wide backlash against women and what they have achieved in recent years. She describes this backlash as a "kind of pop-culture version of the Big Lie" and declares that "it stands the truth boldly on its head and proclaims that the very steps that have elevated women's positions have actually led to their downfall."
In her book, Faludi takes the press to task for failing to challenge the myths about women in the 1980s and especially for spreading, through "trend journalism," stories about how unhappy women are, despite their having reaped the benefits of women's liberation in the 1970s. Faludi challenges the prevailing wisdom that the women's movement is to blame for women's unhappiness; she believes their unhappiness actually stems from the fact that the struggle for equality is not yet finished.
Faludi uses data from a wide variety of sources, such as government and university studies, newspapers, census reports, scholarly journals, and personal interviews to explore women's status in the 1980s. The personal interviews offer a look at the individuals who are behind the "backlash" and, according to Faludi, are hindering women's progress.
Susan Faludi was born in New York City on April 18, 1959 to Steven Faludi, a photographer, and Marilyn Lanning Faludi, an editor. When Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women was released in 1991, the book received honors and postive and negative criticism for its controversial content. Susan Faludi, however, was already familiar with controversy. Faludi covered a number of contentious subjects for her high school and college newspapers. Writing for her high school newspaper, she addressed the issue of whether several on-campus Christian organizations had violated the concept of the separation of church and state. While an undergraduate at Harvard University, she wrote an article on sexual harassment that led to the dismissal of a guilty professor after the article was published.
After graduating from Harvard, Faludi worked for the New York Times, the Miami Herald, and the Atlanta Constitution and soon garnered a reputation as a crusading journalist. She received a 1991 Pulitzer Prize for an article she wrote for the Wall Street Journal on the Safeway Stores' leveraged buyout and its impact on employees.
In 1986, Faludi contacted the U. S. Census Bureau about the notorious Harvard-Yale marriage study and discovered that the study's methodology and results—including the much-quoted finding that single, educated, career women over thirty had only a 20 percent chance of ever getting married—were suspect. Though she and other writers reported the errors in the study, most of the national press simply focused on the sensational results. Faludi's interest in discerning the facts from the fictions about women's status in the 1980s prompted her to write Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.
The book went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction in 1991. Since then, Faludi has written for various periodicals, including Mother Jones and Ms. In 1999, she published her second book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, a similarly extensive tome on issues American men are feeling. Faludi currently lives and writes in California.
Faludi begins by stating that, though many may agree that the end of the twentieth century is a good time to be a woman, press reports and surveys indicate that women are unhappy with their lives. Often, this is blamed on a variety of factors related to feminism, such as women working outside the home. "Women are enslaved by their own liberation," claim many commentators who argue against feminism. But Faludi disagrees, arguing instead that women are unhappy because the real work of achieving equality has barely begun. She uses statistics that show that women still make less money and hold more low-status jobs than men and that domestic violence and rape are on the rise:
The truth is that the last decade has seen a powerful counterassault on women's rights, a backlash, an attempt to retract the handful of small and hard-won victories the feminist movement did manage to win for women.
Faludi presents a number of what she calls myths, stories "that have supported the backlash against women's quest for equality." Even though these myths have appeared in newspapers and have become accepted facts in America, they are untrue. These myths include the notions that women are finding it more difficult to find husbands, that no-fault divorce laws are to blame for the reduction in the standard of living of divorced women, that professional women are increasingly infertile, that career women have more mental illnesses than noncareer women, and that children in day care suffer permanent damage.
The history of women's rights in the United States is much longer than most people believe, Faludi says, and dates to well before the 1970s, a decade that many today see as the advent of feminism. While backlashes against women's rights can be traced to colonial times, Faludi limits her examination to the backlashes after the four most recent periods of advancement: the mid-nineteenth century, the early 1900s, the early 1940s, and the early 1970s. Currently, she says, Americans are in a backlash phase against the advances made in the 1970s. She also notes that each of the backlash periods included a supposed "crisis in masculinity" and its companion, "a call to femininity."
This chapter covers how the media, through "trend journalism," helped create the backlash against women's rights and feminism in the 1980s by coining the terms "mommy track," "biological clock," and "man shortage." The press sought to answer the question of why women, after years of advances, still felt dissatisfied. Their answer was that feminism's achievements, not society's "resistance to these partial achievements," were causing the stress among women. The media claimed that there was a trend afoot (personified in the "New Traditionalist" woman) in which women were choosing home life over careers; this did not have any statistical support, according to Faludi. Media reports were presenting a view of single women as defective, while single men were lauded for making "mature" decisions.
Here, Faludi addresses how the backlash shaped Hollywood's portrayal of women in the 1980s. While a number of films in the 1970s positively portrayed single women making choices that supported their careers, the 1980s produced a crop of films in which single career women were made to pay dearly for their decisions not to have children and husbands. Faludi points to Fatal Attraction as the epitome of anti-feminism in the late 1980s. In the movie, Glenn Close plays a bitter, single, career woman who takes out her anger on otherwise happily married Michael Douglas after a brief affair. In many 1980s films, as in Fatal Attraction, Faludi states, the plot involves the feminine "Light Woman" killing the aggressively manly "Dark Woman." The press, however, declared that these movies' themes constituted a trend and found actual women like Close's character to write about.
According to Faludi, while women largely disappeared from prime-time television programming in the late 1980s (as they did in the late 1950s and early 1960s), "TV's counterassault on women's liberation would be … more restrained than Hollywood's." During the mid-1970s, many television series tackled political issues, including feminism. But by the early 1980s, the tide was beginning to turn. The few shows with strong women were toned down to appeal to advertisers. Television in the 1980s condemned women who dared step outside the home, and single career women were usually given angry or neurotic personalities. The only "good" female character in the popular series thirtysomething was the angelic Hope, according to Faludi, a stay-at-home mom who was the envy of her careerist female friends.
In the 1970s, the fashion industry responded to a push from career women to produce more suits and practical clothing. But in the 1980s, a backlash occurred in which designers decided that fashion would be more feminine and fantastical—even to the point of childishness. One of the chief perpetrators of this "little girl" look was Christian Lacroix, according to Faludi. After a lull in the 1970s in sales of undergarments and lingerie, the industry declared that the 1980s was seeing a boom in this area. However, according to Faludi, this was a press-generated trend and did not reflect reality. A major reason women were not buying lingerie was that the styles in the late 1980s "celebrated the repression, not the flowering of female sexuality."
In the 1980s, the beauty industry—including those who encouraged unnecessary plastic surgery as well as those who sold cosmetics—set a standard of femininity for American women that Faludi believes was "grossly unnatural." Even though it may be one of the most superficial of the cultural institutions involved in the backlash, Faludi believes that, because the beauty industry changed how women felt about themselves, it was the most destructive.
Faludi discusses the "New Right movement" of the 1980s and its agenda—purported to be profamily but, in her opinion, was simply anti-women and anti-feminist. Faludi focuses on the women who work for New Right organizations, such as the Heritage Foundation and Concerned Women for America. She notes that even though these organizations claim that women cannot be both good mothers and good career women, the New Right's female leaders are living lives that contradict this sentiment.
Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency in 1980 came with the help of many New Right women, Faludi asserts. However, she notes that a by-product of Reagan's victory was that "women began disappearing from federal office"—even women who were conservative and anti-feminist. Faludi adds that Democrats did much the same thing during the 1980s and that no one challenged them.
Faludi argues that "the backlash's emissaries" came not only from the New Right movement but also from among the numerous writers, scholars, and thinkers who appeared in the mainstream media. In this chapter, she profiles nine of these men and women, not in an attempt to "psychoanalyze" them, she says, but to offer an overview of those who helped make the backlash against women's rights more "palatable for public consumption." They include George Gilder, Allan Bloom, Michael and Margarita Levin, Warren Farrell, Robert Bly, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Betty Friedan, and Carol Gilligan.
In the 1970s, according to Faludi, commercially popular therapeutic and self-help books directed toward women told their readers that they had the right to be treated with respect. In contrast, similar books published in the 1980s urged women to keep quiet and not challenge the social order. These books also blamed feminism for women's unhappiness and asked their readers to criticize only themselves if their lives were not what they envisioned. Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association amended its standard diagnosis reference to include, according to Faludi, anti-woman definitions for two disorders, masochistic personality disorder and pre-menstrual syndrome.
The Reagan administration in the 1980s downplayed reports that women were losing status in the workplace, according to Faludi. The press failed to investigate this disinformation campaign and actually participated in publicizing misinformation about the backlash against working women. After the gains made in the 1970s, women particularly in the media, retail, and blue-collar industries suffered in their efforts to secure workplace equality in the 1980s.
In this chapter, Faludi discusses how the 1980s backlash against women affected their reproductive rights. In 1973, the U. S. Supreme Court declared abortion legal in Roe v. Wade, but during the 1980s organizations such as Operation Rescue and many conservative politicians wanted to reverse the result of the ruling. Faludi argues that women's ability to regulate their fertility contributed to dramatic changes "not in the abortion rate but in female sexual behavior and attitudes," and this was frightening to many. According to Faludi, in the 1980s, women were losing the right to make decision regarding the treatment of their bodies while pregnant.
Faludi tells a number of women's personal stories to show that "for all the forces the backlash mustered … women never really surrendered." She is, though, somewhat disappointed that women as a whole did not take advantage of their numbers as much as they could have in the 1980s to make their case for equality. "The '80s could have become American women's great leap forward," she believes.
Neil Bennett was one of the researchers involved in the 1986 Harvard-Yale marriage study, which concluded that college-educated, never-married women past the age of thirty had a slim chance of ever marrying. Bennett was a Yale University sociologist when stories about the as-yet-unpublished study on women's marriage patterns ran in various media outlets. This study generated the idea that there was a "man shortage" in America, something Faludi denies in her book.
Allan Bloom was a professor at the University of Chicago and writer of the bestselling book The Closing of the American Mind. While the book has been publicized as a treatise on education, Faludi argues that it was actually "an assault on the women's movement." According to Faludi, Bloom believes that "most faculty jobs and publication rights are now reserved for feminist women" and that women who try to mix a career with rearing children are hurting their families.
David Bloom was one of the researchers involved in the 1986 Harvard-Yale marriage study, which claimed that college-educated, never-married women past the age of thirty had a small chance of ever marrying. Bloom was a Harvard economist when stories about the as-yet-unpublished study on women's marriage patterns ran in various media outlets. This study generated the idea that there was a "man shortage" in America, something Faludi denies in her book.
Originally a poet and Vietnam-era anti-war activist, Robert Bly re-created himself in the 1980s as a leader in what Faludi calls "the men's movement." This movement, according to Faludi, was based upon the idea that men were becoming "soft" and were out of touch with their masculinity. "In short," she writes, "the Great Mother's authority has become too great." Across the country, Bly held weekend retreats in the woods devoted to reconnecting men with their masculinity through drumming and Native American rituals.
Diana Doe is a pseudonym for a thirty-five-year-old single, working woman who, though she was a public figure, asked Faludi not to use her real name in the book. Doe bet a doubtful male colleague—who had called her "physically inferior" to younger women—that she would be married by the time she was forty despite press reports in 1986 stating that professional single women over thirty had a 5 percent chance of ever marrying. To help her chances of marriage, Doe decided to get a complete physical makeover through plastic surgery and other techniques. She created a market plan in which she agreed to sell the story of her physical "metamorphosis" to various media outlets and gave herself a stage name: "the Ultimate Five Percent Woman." The "project," as Doe referred to it, required her to mention the names of her plastic surgeon, dentist, exercise trainer, and beautician in articles and during personal appearances in exchange for their services. During the project, Doe appeared on a radio show and received criticism from male listeners who considered her vain and unnatural. Faludi bemoans the case of Doe, noting that first a male colleague criticized her for not being young, and then "men were criticizing her for trying to live up to male-created standards—standards she had made her own."
Greg Duncan was a University of Michigan social scientist working with Saul Hoffman. They challenged Marlene Weitzman's argument that divorce was impoverishing women. Duncan used his and Hoffman's research and Weitzman's numbers to conclude that, while women did suffer a drop in their standard of living after divorce, that drop was temporary. According to Duncan and his research partner, women's living standards five years after a divorce were actually higher than they had been before the divorce.
As a young academic, Warren Farrell supported the women's movement, writing the "celebrated male feminist tome" The Liberated Man, and founding some sixty men's chapters of the National Organization for Women. But by the mid-1980s, Farrell decided that men were more oppressed than women and wrote Why Men Are the Way They Are, in which he argued that women had been venting too much anger at men and had exerted too much power over them. He taught classes on men's issues at the University of California School of Medicine at San Diego.
Geraldine Ferraro was a member of Congress when Democrat Walter Mondale selected her to be his vice presidential running mate in 1984. Faludi notes that Ferraro's nomination provoked attacks from many conservative politicians and notions that the Democrats had "surrendered" to feminists by choosing her.
Betty Freidan was once one of America's most famous feminists, a founder of the National Organization for Women and author of the groundbreaking 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique. Faludi writes about Freidan's 1981 book, The Next Stage, which argues that the leaders of the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s had ignored the issues of motherhood and family and had been too confrontational.
George Gilder initially supported feminism and women's rights, according to Faludi, but ultimately made a name for himself as a conservative media commentator and writer. In his words, he decided to become "America's number-one antifeminist" by writing such books as Wealth and Poverty, Sexual Suicide, Men and Marriage, and Naked Nomads.
Many books were published in the 1980s on how women are different from men and about "women's inordinate capacity for kindness, service to others, and cooperation," according to Faludi. During this period, Carol Gilligan wrote In a Different Voice, a book Faludi refers to as "one of the most influential feminist works of the '80s." While Gilligan wrote the book to illustrate how men diminished women's moral development, the book was misinterpreted by anti-feminist groups to support discriminatory practices against women.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and other think-tanks, indicted the women's movement in her book A Lesser Life: Myths of Women's Liberation in America. The book argued that, while feminism may be helpful to upper-class career women, it is actually harmful to what she calls "ordinary women."
• Susan Faludi is the reader on the audiotape version of her book, Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women. Publishing Mills produced the audiotape in 1992.
Saul Hoffman was a University of Delaware economist who specialized in divorce statistics and worked with Greg Duncan. They challenged Marlene Weitzman's argument that divorce was impoverishing women, using their own research and Weitzman's numbers. They discovered that, while women did suffer a drop in their standard of living after divorce, that drop was temporary. According to Hoffman and Duncan, women's living standards five years after a divorce were actually higher than they had been before the divorce.
Christian Lacroix was a fashion designer. Faludi writes that Lacroix launched a look called "High Femininity," in which women's bodies were cinched into waist-pinching corsets and reshaped by push-up bras. In his own words, Lacroix created these clothes for women who like to "dress up like little girls." Lacroix and other designers participated in the backlash against feminism by promoting "punitively restrictive clothing," according to Faludi.
Beverly LaHaye was an example of a paradox for Faludi: a high-powered career woman with a family and yet a supporter of the New Right's conviction that such a life is neither possible nor appropriate. LaHaye founded the anti-feminist organization Concerned Women for America in 1978. In Faludi's book, LaHaye claims that her power and authority did not contradict the concept that men should be the heads of households, as women like her were only seeking "spiritual power" and not earthly power. LaHaye wrote a book outlining this philosophy, The Spirit-Controlled Woman and also wrote The Act of Marriage: The Beauty of Sexual Love, a book Faludi calls "the evangelical equivalent of The Joy of Sex."
Sherry Lansing was a movie executive responsible for releasing films such as Fatal Attraction and The Accused in the 1980s. Faludi points to Fatal Attraction, the story of a single career woman whose affair with a married man sparks her obsession with him, as part of the evidence of a societal and cultural backlash against women's rights in the 1980s. According to Faludi, Lansing's release of The Accused, a film about a woman who is gang-raped while a group of men stand by but don't interfere was a feeble attempt to "polish up her feminist credentials." Faludi questions whether audiences needed to be "reminded that rape victims deserve sympathy."
Margarita Levin was a philosophy professor at Yeshiva University, with a specialty in the philosophy of mathematics. She was also, according to Faludi, "an intellectual partner" in her husband, Michael Levin's, "antifeminist writings." Faludi reports that, ironically, many of the typically female jobs in the Levin household, such as child care, were done by Michael Levin as well as by his wife.
Michael Levin was a philosophy professor who wrote Feminism and Freedom, a book arguing that sex roles are innate and that women who attempt to have both family and career are denying these sex roles. He was married to Margarita Levin, also a philosophy professor. Faludi reports that many of the typically female jobs in the Levin household, such as child care, were done by Michael Levin as well as by his wife.
Adrian Lyne directed the 1987 blockbuster movie Fatal Attraction, in which a single career woman has an affair with a married man and stalks him after he tries to break off the relationship. Faludi points to this movie as part of the evidence of a societal and cultural backlash against women's rights in the 1980s. She highlights Lyne's role in turning the character of the single woman into "the Dark Woman." According to Faludi, Lyne once commented that unmarried women are "sort of overcompensating for not being men."
John T. Malloy
John Malloy, a former English teacher, wrote the 1977 bestselling book The Woman's Dress for Success Book. The book encouraged women to dress for the jobs they wanted. Faludi notes that Malloy was "an advocate for women's rising expectations—and urged them to rely on their brains rather than their bodies to improve their station." She argues that much of the "High Femininity" fashion look of the 1980s was a backlash against what Malloy stood for.
Paul Marciano, along with his brothers, created the Guess line of jeans and clothing in the early 1980s. Faludi asserts that Guess found a way to "use the backlash to sell clothes" by developing an ad campaign featuring passive-looking women with strong-looking men. Marciano claimed that the design of the ads reflected his love of the American West and the 1950s, places and periods in which women, he said, "know their place, which is supportive, and their function, which is decorative."
Connie Marshner was an executive with the conservative organizations Free Congress Research and Education Foundation and the Heritage Foundation. She was the child of liberal parents who encouraged her to go to school and have a career. Faludi draws a profile of her as a woman who has been helped by feminism—she has had a thriving and powerful career as well as a family—and yet still supports the New Right thinking that a woman cannot have a career and be a mother.
Jeanne Moorman, a demographer in the marriage and family statistics branch of the U. S. Census Bureau, heard about the Harvard-Yale marriage study from the numerous reporters who called her looking for a comment on it. Moorman attempted to reproduce the survey's results. According to her calculations, the likelihood that college-educated, never-wed women past the age of thirty would marry was considerably greater than the Harvard-Yale study had concluded. Her findings showed that these women were simply getting married later in life, not failing to marry. Moorman's attempts to contact the researchers at Yale and Harvard were ignored at first. When they finally did respond, the researchers were uncooperative and difficult, according to Faludi.
Faith Popcorn was an advertising executive and "leading consumer authority" who became well known in the 1980s for predicting social trends. She admitted that her predictions often came from popular magazines, television shows, and bestselling books, rather than from consumer research. Popcorn predicted that "cocooning" was the major national trend for the 1980s, meaning that people were becoming more interested in staying home and eating "Mom foods" such as meatloaf and chicken potpie. Faludi argues that, while Popcorn may have intended for cocooning to be a "gender neutral concept, the press made it a female trend, defining cocooning not as people coming home but as women abandoning the office."
Ronald Reagan was elected United States president in 1980 on a conservative social and economic platform. Faludi notes that in a 1982 speech he blamed working women for the tight job market. Reagan said in the speech that high unemployment figures were related to "the increase in women who are working today."
Charles Revson was the head of Revlon, a cosmetics company. In the early 1970s, he came up with the idea of creating a perfume for women that would celebrate women's liberation and independence. The perfume, Charlie, was a huge success. By the late 1980s, however, the marketing campaign for Charlie was modified, according to a Revson spokesperson, to reflect that "we had gone a little too far with the whole women's liberation thing."
Phyllis Schlafly was a part of the conservative New Right political movement in the 1980s. She campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U. S. Constitution. Schlafly was a Harvard-educated lawyer, author of numerous books, and two-time congressional candidate who fought against the ERA because, in Schlafly's words, "it would take away the marvelous legal rights of a woman to be a fulltime wife and mother in the house supported by her husband."
Aaron Spelling was the producer behind the late 1980s television series Angels '88, a reprise of his earlier series Charlie's Angels, in which, according to Faludi, "three jiggle-prone private eyes took orders from invisible boss Charlie and bounced around in bikinis." Spelling assured the press that his new show was much more advanced than Charlie's Angels because the women's boss was a female nurse.
Ben Wattenberg was a syndicated columnist, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and author of the 1987 book The Birth Dearth. In the book, Wattenberg introduced the concept that American women's decisions to have fewer children would hurt the nation's economy and culture. According to Faludi, Wattenberg and others were urging women to have children based on "society's baser instincts—xenophobia, militarism, and bigotry" by arguing that if white, educated, middle-class women didn't have babies, "paupers, fools and foreigners would." Wattenberg blamed the women's movement and feminism for discouraging women from their more traditional societal roles.
Lenore Weitzman wrote the 1985 book The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America. According to Faludi, Weitzman's thesis, that the recent no-fault divorce laws in America were systematically impoverishing divorced women and their children, increased the "attack on divorce-law reform" in the 1980s. While Weitzman herself never blamed feminists for no-fault divorce legislation, Faludi notes that those who were promoting and supporting her book did so.
Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, is considered by many to be the "Father of the New Right." The New Right was the conservative political movement that supported Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s and put many conservative Republicans in Congress. In Faludi's book, Weyrich called the late 1980s a period when "women are discovering they can't have it all" and that having a career will destroy their family life. He also said that the New Right movement was different from other conservative movements in that it did not want simply to "preserve the status quo" but to "overturn the present power structure of the country." One of the major pieces of legislation he supported at the beginning of the 1980s was the Family Protection Act, which, according to Faludi, was intended to eliminate federal laws supporting equal education.
Structure and Functioning of Families
Conservative thinkers and writers object to feminism because it ignores what they see as a woman's natural inclination toward making a home for her children and husband. In their eyes, feminists' endorsement of a woman's ability to maintain a home while pursuing a career threatens the family structure by subverting the man as the traditional head of the household. This, in turn, threatens the country's social and economic structure. Those who view feminism in this way believe that the women's movement is not only encouraging women to work while they have children but also to forgo or delay having children. Faludi is particularly concerned that the backlash against women delaying childbirth encourages press reports that there is an "epidemic" of infertility among career women.
Some conservative commentators, who argue that feminists have encouraged women to remain childless, believe that such urgings place the nation at an economic disadvantage in the world. In her analysis of this argument, Faludi asserts that those who make this case for American women having children can be accused of racism and xenophobia. She believes that they are worried not only about America's economic future but also about the possibility of whites becoming a minority among people of color and foreigners.
Faludi delights in revealing the personal lives of many of the conservative thinkers who oppose feminism, observing that those lives very often run counter to the tenets of their public comments. She writes about a number of the women involved in the New Right who, despite their arguments that careers and motherhood do not mix, are pursuing lives filled with both children and work. She also points out the number of men in these prominent couples who take over the household duties, such as child care and cooking, so that their wives can pursue careers.
Popular Culture in the 1980s
Faludi uses popular culture during the 1980s to buttress her argument that the decade was a period of backlash against women and feminism. Her evidence for this backlash includes examples from the movie industry, television, the cosmetics and beauty industry, the fashion world, and societal trends.
For example, Faludi notes that after a decade filled with television series like All in the Family, which tackled tough political issues (including women's rights), television in the mid-to late 1980s featured few programs in which women's issues were considered. The rare 1980s show featuring a strong woman was usually under threat of cancellation. In the movies, women were regularly beaten, pitted against each other, or punished for being single. Hollywood supported the backlash by showing American women who were "unhappy because they were too free [and] their liberation had denied them marriage and motherhood," says Faludi. The fashion industry reinforced the backlash, as well, by designing clothing that was either childlike or extremely restrictive and binding.
The Struggle for Equal Rights
Faludi's book is concerned with a period in history—the 1980s—during which women's struggle for equal rights suffered setbacks. She notes, however, that these periods of backlash historically occur after periods of advancement in women's rights. According to Faludi, the mid-nineteenth century, the early 1900s, the early 1940s, and the early 1970s were eras during which American women saw large gains in their economic and social status. "In each case, the struggle yielded to backlash," asserts Faludi.
Faludi points out that the backlash against women is cyclical. For example, when she speaks of movies in the 1980s, she also looks at the tenor of movies in the 1970s. When she examines 1980s fashions, she also considers what women were wearing in the 1950s, a period of backlash after the advances of the 1940s.
Topics for Further Study
- Susan Faludi wrote her book primarily in the late 1980s. Do you think the status of women in the United States has changed since then? What about societal attitudes? Is society in a period of backlash or of advancement for women's rights? Provide specific examples from some of the sectors of society covered in Faludi's book—the entertainment industry, the media, government, and so forth—to support your opinion.
- Faludi mentions quite a few movies as evidence that a backlash against women occurred in the 1980s. Watch one of the movies she says is anti-feminist and write a short essay agreeing or disagreeing with her position. Use specific examples from the movie to make your argument. Has she misinterpreted this movie or is she correct in her evaluation?
- Research the four periods of American history during which Faludi says there were advancements in the status of women. Also research the years following these periods, when Faludi argues that there was backlash against women. Create a time line for each of these advancement and backlash eras, including both events pertaining to women's rights and unrelated national and world events. Analyze and explain any patterns you see.
- Interview a woman you know who has a career and is also a mother. Ask her questions about some of the issues explored in Backlash. Choose your questions based on the issues you find most interesting. Then write up your interview in the form of a newspaper feature article.
- Choose someone Faludi interviewed for her book and do research to find out what that person is doing now and whether his or her views have changed.
Myths and Their Role in Society
Faludi points out that many in society, including some well-meaning writers and thinkers, have accepted the truth of myths about the status of women in the 1980s. She exposes many of these myths and supposed trends, which have appeared so often in the press that most Americans consider them as fact. For example, Faludi discovered that the Harvard-Yale marriage study, proclaiming that unmarried women after the age of thirty have a very slim chance of ever becoming wed was full of methodological errors. She also challenges stories claiming that single career women suffer from depression in epidemic numbers.
Use of Evidence to Make an Argument
Faludi's book is overflowing with data and information that she believes bolsters her case that the 1980s represented a period of backlash against women and their advances. Her supporting data comes from a wide variety of sources, including newspapers, scholarly and academic journals, personal interviews, and government and university studies. This use of authoritative sources is an important way writers convince readers of their argument; however, some critics have suggested that Faludi uses almost too much factual data and that its volume actually hinders her argument.
Faludi also includes short profiles of people she believes were critical to the evolution of the backlash against women in the 1980s. Inclusion of these profiles helps move the book along in a number of ways: reading about specific individuals who contributed to the backlash—even though Faludi obviously disagrees with their philosophy—puts a human face on the philosophy and makes the issues seem less amorphous; and the profiles offer some relief from the pages and pages of data. Faludi is able to point her finger directly at the commentators, writers, politicians, and thinkers who she feels helped the backlash gain momentum.
Despite the apparent simplicity of the language in the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U. S. Constitution, it was one of the most divisive political issues in the 1970s. The fifty-two words of the amendment were as follows:
1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
The issue of an equal rights amendment to the U. S. Constitution first emerged in the 1920s and appeared on a regular basis thereafter. Early opponents to the amendment—including labor unions and social reform groups—cited uncertainty about how the proposal would affect legislation meant to assist women and children. In 1972, the U. S. Congress passed the ERA. The next step was for the legislatures of thirty-eight states (three-fourths of the fifty states) to ratify the amendment by 1979. In about a year, twenty-five states had passed the ERA.
The pace of ratification then slowed tremendously. In 1977, only three more states were needed for the amendment to become part of the U. S. Constitution, but by the 1979 deadline this had not happened. Congress extended the deadline to 1982, but no other states ratified the ERA after 1977, and the amendment failed.
Opposition to the ERA came primarily from political conservatives who feared that the amendment would substantially change the roles of men and women. Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist, organized the Stop ERA campaign, based primarily on the issue of the amendment's impact on families. She and others argued that the ERA would bring an end to a husband's obligation to support his wife and children, force the creation of unisex bathrooms, and include women in the military draft.
Faludi points out that American women's access to legal abortion was generally uncontested until the last half of the nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, every state in the union had outlawed abortion except in cases in which the woman's life was in jeopardy. In 1967, the National Organization for Women advocated the repeal of abortion laws, and other organizations, such as the group Zero Population Growth, also saw access to abortion as part of their agendas. By 1969, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) was founded. NARAL made progress organizing at the state level and had received qualified support from such religious groups as the American Lutheran Church and the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. Soon, four states had eased access to legal abortions.
In 1972, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of abortion rights activists, deciding in its landmark case Roe v. Wade that the Constitution prohibits interference by states in medical decisions between a woman and her physician during the first trimester of a pregnancy. In the later stages of a pregnancy, the court ruled, states could regulate abortion.
The reaction to the Roe v. Wade decision was immediate and galvanized a number of groups against access to abortion. The Catholic Church in America issued a statement that its members would be excommunicated if they participated in or received an abortion. Many Christian evangelical groups condemned the ruling as well, claiming that the Supreme Court had rejected morality. The anti-abortion movement, now referring to itself as pro-life, also gained strength and numbers among political conservatives during this period and into the 1980s. Abortion clinics became battlegrounds for the fight between pro-life and pro-choice (those supporting access to abortion) groups.
When Backlash was published in the fall of 1991, it was a popular success and stayed at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for months. Numerous critics praised Faludi for her use of compelling data and for the book's timely topic. Wendy Kaminer, writing in the Atlantic, called the book a "comprehensive survey of a powerful ten-year backlash against feminism." Faludi's critique of the media's role in maintaining this backlash, according to Kaminer, was "powerful," and she rejected some critics' accusations that the book was based on conspiracy theory. Kaminer, however, did warn readers that Faludi's work was much more descriptive than analytic.
Gayle Greene's review of Faludi's book in the Nation was similarly receptive, calling the book a "rich compendium of fascinating information and an indictment of a system." Greene also lauded Faludi's considerable interviewing skills and expressed surprise that the author was able to get her subjects to "blurt out marvelously self-incriminating revelations, offering up the real reasons they hate and fear feminists."
This praise continued in the Whole Earth Review, in which Ann Norton admired Faludi's book for its clarity and logical arguments. Norton also appreciated Faludi's use of specific examples in popular culture to drive home her points, making her book accessible to everyone interested in the topic. "This is the book for those who have puzzled and despaired … over magazine and newspaper articles and TV news shows declaring the 'death of feminism,"' remarked Norton.
Not all of the reviews were positive however; Karen Lehrman, writing in the New Republic, argued that despite the large number of examples, Faludi's assigning malevolent and organized motives to the backlash was the book's undoing. She called Faludi's arguments "dubious" and accused Faludi of seeing "a cabal of villains … successfully intimidating a large class of victims: women." Lehrman complained that Faludi's book portrayed women as victims until the very end, where the author admitted that woman have not been totally beaten by the backlash. "Writing this in the introduction would have undermined her portrayal of women as helpless, passive victims of society's devious designs," Lehrman asserted.
Some of the criticism of Faludi's book became quite vehement. Maggie Gallagher, writing for the National Review, called Faludi's book "an ignorant, nasty, little book … small-minded, crafty, conniving, a disgrace even to journalistic standards, and an insult to women." She pointed to what she claimed was Faludi's misrepresentation of the facts in a number of instances, asserting that "evidence is not Miss Faludi's strong point." Gretchen Morgenson, writing in Forbes, condemned the book for shoddy reporting, bad writing, paranoia, and for encouraging women to think of themselves as victims. "In the opinion of this career woman," wrote Morgenson, " Backlash is a last gasp of Seventies feminism, a final attempt to rally women to a shrill, anti-male cause that has been comatose for years."
Some critics, while not agreeing with all of Faludi's arguments and methods, still realized the importance of the book. Nancy Gibbs, writing for Time, declared that the success of Faludi's book was based on "the resonance of the questions Faludi raises." While Gibbs admitted that Faludi did mis-handle some statistics in her book, this "should not be an excuse to dismiss her entire argument." Faludi had, according to Gibbs, inspired both men and women to rethink how they relate to each other, on a personal as well as on a public level.
Sanderson holds a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer. In this essay, she considers the language Faludi uses in her book and how it contributes to her purpose of sounding the alarm about women's rights.
Some critics have argued that in her 1991 book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Faludi constructs a world filled with organized schemes perpetrated by those who wish only ill upon all of America's women. For example, Karen Lehrman, writing in the New Republic, charges that Faludi's book is based on a "conspiracy theory" and implies that "a cabal of villains has been at work successfully intimidating a large class of victims: women." After summarily dismissing Faludi's book, Gretchen Morgenson writes in Forbes,"if you are naturally paranoid, you may like this book."
Faludi, on the other hand, when asked about the book, denies that she believes in an organized conspiracy against women. During an interview with Time six months after the book was released, Faludi responded to the interviewer's question about these allegations. "Anyone who says that can't possibly have read the book. I say about fourteen times that I don't mean there's a conspiracy. This is not a book about hating men," she answers.
In the book's first chapter, where she sets the tone for her work, Faludi makes clear that she does not see the backlash against women in terms of a conspiracy. Referring to the various ways in which the backlash has made itself known in society and popular culture, Faludi remarks that these aspects are "all related, but that doesn't mean they are somehow coordinated. The backlash is not a conspiracy, with a council dispatching agents from some central back room." But, as she points out, the fact that the backlash isn't coordinated or organized does not reduce its destructiveness.
Before completely rejecting these critics' complaints, however, there may be a practical reason why so many have seen a conspiracy theory in Faludi's book. In the first chapter, Faludi explains her plan for the book and also briefly considers the language used to describe the backlash. "Women's advances and retreats are generally described in military terms," she notes, acknowledging the value of using such terms as "battle." Tempering this sentiment, though, she goes on to note that by "imagining the conflict as two battalions neatly arrayed on either side of the line, we miss the entangled nature … of a 'war."' While she seems to be saying that she will not use warlike language, such language does appear throughout the book.
A majority of the information Faludi relays in the book is presented as cool, hard data, but an important part of her message is delivered using words that are angry and warlike. By using these types of words, she signals that she believes the struggle between feminists and those opposing feminism to be an ongoing, organized conflict between two forces.
The book does draw lines along which two armies might stand: feminists versus anti-feminists. Even though Faludi claims not to express this image, she has done just that by her use of language. Hardly a chapter is presented that does not depend upon military metaphors or use language to bolster Faludi's argument. She refers to the " campaign against no-fault divorce" in one chapter; in another, she claims that the sour 1980s economy pushed society to consider women as "the enemy"; and in yet another chapter Faludi describes how, with the help of 1980s advice writers, "the backlash insinuated itself into the most intimate front lines." Sprinkling such terms throughout the book, Faludi has made it clear that she envisions the opposition of parties involved.
Even chapter titles illustrate conflict: only two of the fourteen chapter titles do not include the word "backlash," and those two remaining chapter titles include the equally strong words "blame" and "war." Other chapter titles include the words "refugee," "occupation," and "invasion."
What Do I Read Next?
- Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man is Susan Faludi's second book, published in 1999. In this work, she furthers her studies in gender relations, chronicling the thoughts and words of post—World War II men.
- Simone de Beauvoir's groundbreaking 1953 book, The Second Sex, uses history, philosophy, economics, and biology to understand women's roles in the second half of the twentieth century. This book was published well before much thought was given to issues surrounding women's place in the world, and was one of the first books to discuss post—World War II feminism.
- The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History is a collection of four hundred articles celebrating the role of lesser-known women who have had an impact on American history. Wilma Mankiller, Gwendolyn Mink, Marysa Navarro, and Gloria Steinem edited the collection, published in 1999. Entries include an essay on the role of Native American women and a narrative on the female slave experience.
- American writer Grace Paley has described herself as a pacifist, feminist, and anarchist. Her short stories include characters struggling to understand their roles in a society that often limits behavior based on gender. The Collected Stories, published in 1995, brings together more than thirty years of her acclaimed stories.
In the backlash against women, Faludi is not ambiguous about her enemy's identity. Not only does she name names throughout the text, but she also paints unflattering, almost propagandistic portraits of the opposition camp. When she describes photographer Wayne Maser setting up an advertising shoot for the "anti-women" film Fatal Attraction, for example, Faludi considers how vain Maser is about his clothing. Randall Terry, founder of the anti-abortion campaign Operation Rescue, is described as "a used car salesman" who jerks his thumb at his wife to indicate that she's not to speak to Faludi.
Faludi delights, as well, in showing politically conservative thinkers and writers in ironically conflicting situations. Though Gary Bauer, an aide to President Ronald Reagan, once called children's day care "Marxist" and urged women to stay at home, his own wife worked for nine years, and they placed their children in, as Faludi jokes, "this leftist institution." Faludi gleefully relates that when asked about the apparent hypocrisy, Bauer claimed that "his use of day care was 'different' and 'better' because he placed his children in 'home-based' day care—that is, an unlicensed center run out of a woman's living room." A visit to conservative authors and professors Michael and Margarita Levin unearths even more unflattering information about the home life of anti-feminists. The Levins argue in their writings that sex roles are innate: men naturally don't like to cook, and women naturally enjoy housework, according to the Levins. When Faludi arrives at their house for an interview, Michael is taking care of the children while Margarita gets ready to teach for the evening. Later, Michael "emerges from the kitchen to say goodbye. He looks a little chagrined—he's wearing an apron," Faludi notes.
Faludi's eye for hypocritical anti-feminists is nothing if not equal opportunity. Those who would claim that Faludi condemns only men should note that anti-feminist women do not escape Faludi's sights; she cites numerous examples of women with children working in high-powered jobs at conservative think tanks while still contending that, for society's own good, women should remain at home with their children.
Though Faludi does create a contentious atmosphere in her book and sets two opposing forces against each other, perhaps her intention isn't to indicate that there is an organized conspiracy against women. Maybe she actually means to show that the fight is not as hidden as a "conspiracy" would be; that is, there is no conspiracy, but there is, in fact, a battle.
Ultimately, Backlash is a book filled with passion and chutzpah. Faludi's passion for her topic is clear from the first page. To write with any less strength and vigor would be to submit to those people who argue that being a woman requires one to be polite, forgiving, and invisible.
This, then, begs the question: Why do Faludi's critics find it surprising that she is up front and even fiery about the backlash, especially when she believes that women's rights are under attack? If Faludi feels the need to sound the alarm, writing in courteous terms will not help achieve her goal of an America in which women are "just as deserving of rights and opportunities, just as capable of participating in the world's events" as men.
Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Susan Faludi with Ruth Conniff
In the following interview, Faludi discusses her views on feminism and its place in American society and the negative reaction to Backlash.
'I think, underneath, all women are feminists. It's just a matter of time and encouragement.'
Susan Faludi, author of the best-selling Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, recently gave a speech to a standing-room-only audience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Afterwards she appeared on Second Opinion, a radio program hosted by The Progressive's Editor Erwin Knoll, and then she spoke with me in the studio for an hour or so. I've incorporated some of her remarks from Erwin's show here, and some she made when we talked again on the telephone after she returned to California, where she is a visiting lecturer at Stanford University. Throughout the interviews, she spoke softly but intensely about her book, her mother, her sudden rise to stardom, and feminism in post-Bush America.
" A majority of the information Faludi relays in the book is presented as cool, hard data, but an important part of her message is delivered using words that are angry and warlike."
Susan Faludi grew up in New York City and graduated from Harvard in 1981. She went to work as a copy girl at The New York Times, and then as a reporter for The Miami Herald, the Atlanta Constitution, the San Jose Mercury News, and The Wall Street Journal. In 1991, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her expose of the Safeway leveraged buyout. Since Backlash was published last year, Faludi has become a media star, dubbed the torchbearer for a new generation of feminists. Yet, she says, she's more comfortable when she's out of the public eye, working as an anonymous reporter, poking holes in the myths that constrain American women.
One powerful section of Backlash is devoted to the movie Fatal Attraction, which Faludi says both represented and reinforced backlash resentments and fears about women. Faludi paints director Adrian Lyne as a sexist bully who badgered and humiliated actresses, and went to great lengths to transform the originally feminist script for Fatal Attraction into a fable in which the uppity single woman is violently suppressed. In Lyne's most recent movie, Indecent Proposal, he takes a passing shot at Faludi—the camera zooms in on a copy of Backlash in the hands of a blonde and apparently airheaded secretary. In the next scene the secretary is shown vamping in front of the movie's hero. So much for feminist enlightenment.
[Conniff]: Did you see Indecent Proposal?
[Faludi:] Yeah, I did.
What did you think of it, and of Backlash 's little cameo in it ?
Well, I actually heard a reporter who had talked to Adrian Lyne explain that Lyne said he wanted to "tweak me," because I had been so hard on him about Fatal Attraction. To which—I don't know—I say tweak away. I think he just threw it in. I don't think there was much thought behind it. I suppose one could spin out a grand textual analysis of why he assigned the reading of Backlash to some gumchewing secretary in spandex, but I think that would be giving more intellectual heft to his reasoning than it deserves.
The reviewer for the Village Voice called Indecent Proposal " the Zeitgeist shocker for the 1990s." (In the movie, Robert Redford's character offers a couple $1 million to let him sleep with the wife.) The reviewer says you won't be able to catch this one in "such easy feminist pincers" as you did Fatal Attraction, because it's the wife's choice—it's very subtle and complex. What do you think of that ?
I didn't find that so subtle and complex. That's one of the standard hallmarks of a lot of backlash cultural artifacts, that they take feminist rhetoric about choice and use it to attack the whole agenda of feminism.
Do you think it was a backlash movie the way Fatal Attraction was ?
Sure. I mean it's not the same movie. I'd have to read this review, but I guess what I find irritating is the assumption that anything that is subject to feminist analysis is "easy," that there are only certain reductive feminist ideas. The fact that this movie might have a slightly different spin to it or shows a woman who supposedly is choosing to have an affair doesn't mean it's not open to feminist analysis.
Anyway, you have to see this movie in the context of all these new movies that are coming out about the bartering of women. I see it as more a movie about masculine anxiety. A number of movies out in the last year—from Falling Down to Mad Dog and Glory (which I actually liked for other reasons)—all seem to express extreme anxiety over men's ability to attract women, hold onto them, support them. And this movie seemed to me to be more about that kind of economic male fear. It seems that it was a struggle between two men, and the woman was really irrelevant. She's the object that's being traded. She has no personality. The movie's about who is going to claim this piece of property. Then there's this very calculating insertion of a scene in which she says, "No, I made the choice to do this." Which I think was just Lyne's attempt to get the feminists off his back.
Do you think there's some hostility there—that the movie is really lashing back at Backlash ?
" If women were running advertising agencies, if women had control in a real way of television stations, of radio stations, we'd be seeing a whole different world."
I think the way he dealt with it in the movie, by dismissing it—and in his mind, I'm sure, trivializing it—by putting it in the hands of a dippy blonde secretary is an expression of hostility, sure. That's often how we dismiss what we fear. On the other hand, usually feminist theory is equated with some beast with an SS outfit. I mean that's generally how men who are hostile toward feminists like to portray them.
That brings me to my next question, which is about Camille Paglia.
Speaking of dominatrixes.
What do you think of Paglia's claim that the backlash isn't against women, it's against doctrinaire feminism? I think you've used the phrase "the heiresses of Puritanism" to describe the way feminism is often portrayed. Is there any grain of truth in that ?
Well, that assumes that most people are so familiar with feminist doctrine that they would find it pervasive and overwhelming. I mean, she's speaking from within the academy, which is a very different brand of feminism than the average woman on the street is exposed to. Having now spent a year in academia, I can to a degree understand the point she's driving at. I mean, sure—not just in feminist studies but in academia in general there's this sort of narrowing specialization and use of coded, elitist language of deconstruction or New Historicism or whatever they're calling it these days, which is to my mind impenetrable and not particularly useful.
But I think to claim that the backlash was inspired by doctrinaire feminism in the world at large is to make the false assumption that people are that deeply steeped in feminist theory, and that so-called doctrinaire feminism has that much sway in the general popular culture, which I don't think it does. I don't think the average American woman was turned off by feminism because of the effect of French feminism in the academy.
But Paglia also has a lot of snappy, vicious things to say about Gloria Steinem. Do you think it's possible that a lot of people share her perception that feminism is just not particularly useful to your average woman ?
Well, if you look at public opinion polls, the vast majority of women say that the women's movement is very relevant to their lives. They think the only problem is the women's movement hasn't gone far enough and hasn't made enough change. Gloria Steinem is also consistently one of the most popular women in those polls of "who do you admire most?" She's always up there with Princess Di.
What galls Camille Paglia is that she's not on the Top Ten list. We should just stick her there so she'll be happy and stop haranguing us. If you go back and read her complaint against the so-called feminist establishment there's this recurrent theme of Camille as an outsider battering down the door trying to get in. The bone she has to pick with feminists is not an intellectual one. It's not over theory. It's the fact that she hasn't been invited to the party. There's something a bit sad and certainly misbegotten about this notion she has that there is this feminist establishment that's yucking it up till three in the morning. I mean, in fact, I don't know what parties she's talking about. I haven't been invited to them either. And she should just relax and not feel so left out. I don't want to psychoanalyze her, but it seems that a lot of this resentment is the resentment of someone who perceives herself as an outsider, which is doubly sad because there is no inside club except in her imagination. And if she is spurned by feminists it's because she goes around making claims that no self-respecting feminist woman would want to be identified with, such as sneering at sexual harassment, sneering at feminists for calling attention to the high rate of rape.
Did you see the television coverage on this high-school gang, the Spur Posse, accused of raping girls for points ?
No, unfortunately that was when I was out of the country. What was your impression of it?
It was sort of amazing. I saw several boys on a talk show, bragging about their conquests. And then the camera would pan across the high-school campus and show girls' legs in mini-skirts walking back and forth.
It's like the coverage of the William Kennedy Smith rape trial. First you think, great, at least they think this is worthy of coverage. But then you realize that they think it's worthy of coverage because they think of it as an excuse to show body parts or, you know, the offending torn panty-hose in the William Kennedy Smith trial. I don't know how many times they showed the defense lawyer dangling her black, push-up bra. And it sounds like this was another case of a chance to do some cheesecake.
Have you ever been sexually harassed ?
In ways that are not particularly dramatic, but fairly mundane and common. At The New York Times, when I was a copy girl, one of the editors was notorious and had been reprimanded for sexual harassment, although only with a slap on the wrist, so he continued to harass mostly younger women who were copy girls. He took me out to lunch and sort of ran his hand up and down my leg, telling me how "talented" I was, and how much he wanted to assist my career.
And how did you respond ?
You know, like most twenty-one-year-old women on their first job, I guess I responded like a deer in the headlights. I just sat there and then sort of gingerly moved my leg away and said thanks so much for the words of support but I need to get back to the office now. I talked to all of the other copy girls I knew and I sort of let the story get out, but I didn't go formally report it. Part of the reason was the reason why all women hesitate before reporting such things when they're in positions of little power and they're at the bottom rung and desirous of moving up a few rungs. But part of the reason was that I knew it wouldn't help any because of this other woman just a year ago. He had gone a great deal further with her, sort of hauled her back to his apartment and jumped on her. But nothing happened. So for me to go knock on the door of human resources and say, well, this guy put his hand on my knee, was not going to go anywhere. You know, it was also a different climate. This is back in the early 1980s, and sexual harassment was not something that one even complained about. I wonder now if it would be different.
What do you think of the debate over sexual harassment—Catharine MacKinnon's theory of the hostile work environment versus the concern that punishing sexual harassment threatens free speech ?
On the one hand, as a journalist I'm not in favor of banning pornography or anything that smells of censorship. For one thing, it's just not very productive. It doesn't make things go away. On the other hand, I do like the ways in which, as women enter the law, because of our social experiences, we approach ideas of law and of what should be a basic right, and what shouldn't, differently. I think if all the founding fathers were founding mothers, the right to bear arms would not necessarily be the first right to pop into our minds. Perhaps the right to have some control over our child-bearing capacity would be a more important place to start. In Canada there's some interesting work being done now with recasting the definition of political refugee to include women who are victims of sexual violence.
In Canada they also now ban pornography. How do you recognize the damage that pervasive misogynist images do and respond to it in a way that isn't restrictive of speech ?
On the sexual harassment front, I don't know—part of me thinks we've barely gotten to that point. For all the kicking and screaming about how men can barely flirt without a woman slapping them with a sexual harassment complaint, sexual harassment is still vastly underreported. And women don't rush off to the court when a guy says, "Oh, you're looking cute today." I mean, it just doesn't really work that way.
But my gut feeling is that it's one thing to expand the definition of political refugee and another thing to start slapping restrictions on what can be in printed material or on the air. And I just become very queasy whenever anyone starts saying that certain material is unsuitable for publication, because that can easily be turned against us. Which is why one defends the right of neo-Nazis to march down the streets of suburban America.
So what do you do if you're feeling overwhelmed in a hostile work environment? Or about the proliferation of images of violence against women everywhere in advertising and television ?
It's this horrible chicken-and-egg problem because the ultimate solution is to have vast numbers of women in positions of influence and power and presumably few of us will be tacking up pinups of the Playmate of the Month. But that's part of the reason we're not in those positions of power, because of that kind of hostile climate that we're working in. If women were running advertising agencies, if women had control in a real way of television stations, of radio stations, we'd be seeing a whole different world. Maybe the place to start is revising FCC regulations to grant radio licenses to women. Starting at that sort of macro level rather than the level of the pinup. Again, I guess it's the sort of raising hell rather than prohibition approach. Just because I say I feel uncomfortable about banning pornography doesn't mean I don't think women should be screaming bloody murder about it. The best way to get rid of pornography is to change people's way of thinking to the point where it doesn't sell anymore.
I want to ask you another question on the micro level. I gave a speech to a group of high-school kids and the girls' big complaint was that they didn't speak in class and they got shouted down. I watched it happen. Even when I was speaking there were guys leaping up in the audience and interrupting to deliver their opinions on abortion. What would you say to those students ?
I have a friend who's writing a book based on that American Association of University Women study that shows that girls have a big plunge in self-esteem at adolescence, and this gender gap occurs between boys and girls. She's been spending a lot of time observing high-school kids in San Francisco Bay Area public schools. And even in the most enlightened classes, where the teacher thinks about it and is very consciously calling on girls, it's still horribly unbalanced.
I saw this myself last year. I was doing a volunteer project teaching writing at the public schools in San Francisco. And the boys, in particular the boys who have nothing to offer, are the ones who are the loudest and just drown out the girls. I don't know. I have a couple of practical thoughts on it. Personally, I wish someone had forced me to go through public speaking and debating classes. I mean a lot of it is that girls don't have the tools. Nobody has taught them how to raise their voices, how to use their diaphragms to project. How to be heard. I went through much of my childhood and college years feeling very oppressed by the fact that no one was listening to me. And then finally someone pointed out, well, no one can hear you.
But this goes on endlessly, In Italy, I was on this show that's billed as the Phil Donahue show of Italy—the Maurizio Costanzo show. It was a panel, me and eight men, and it was as if I wasn't there. The men would talk, and if I would say something, they'd just keep talking right over me. But if one of them spoke up, they would fall silent. Partly there were certain little tricks they used to do that. The male voice is deeper and all that. Also, we are so trained to be polite, and there's something so awful about a woman who speaks in a loud voice, it's so unfeminine. Maybe that's the area to work on, to change notions about femininity. Teachers could do girls a world of good by glamorizing the loud-mouthed girl. It's still going to be a problem though, no matter how many voice lessons you give to girls. It's a real argument for going to a girls' school. They do learn to speak up.
Surely something has to be done for the guys as well. Isn't it disturbing to read all of the self-esteem literature that tells women if you just fix yourself then all these social problems are going to go away ?
Right. That's really true. I mean girls could be heard if the boys weren't shouting so damned loud. Part of the problem is how we define masculinity, rewarding boys for talking at the top of their lungs, for interrupting, for pushing girls and for swaggering and being arrogant, and speaking up when you have nothing to say. Part of it is this idea that the public forum belongs to men. It's the realm in which they are comfortable. And they're taught that in a million different ways. Whereas, by the time we women reach adulthood it's so deeply ingrained in us to feel that we're kind of the mouse in the palace in a public situation or at a lectern.
Do you often run across that famous line, "I'm not a feminist, but… ?"
I've certainly run across that. I tend to operate on the assumption that every self-respecting woman is a feminist, and I sort of act as if they are, saying, "Of course you're a feminist, too." Then let them make the case against it if they like. I think underneath it, all women are feminists. It's just a matter of peeling away the layers of denial and self-protection, and all of the reasons why women back off and try to disavow their own best interests.
I find it really curious that people will always ask me, "When did you become a feminist?" That doesn't make any sense to me, because it seems to me that one is always a feminist. It's, "When did you discover that you were at your core, of course, a feminist?" I assume all other women are that way, and eventually something will happen in their lives that will make the light bulb go on. It's just a matter of time and encouragement. And I like to think that it helps just standing up in an audience, especially of undergraduates—young women who tend to be more vulnerable and fearful of stating their opinion—and just saying, here I am—I'm a feminist and it didn't destroy my life. Quite the contrary, everything good that's ever happened to me came from that starting point of declaring my feminist belief. When I was speaking in Virginia at this real fratand-sorority campus, young women came up to me and said that they had always said that they weren't feminists, but that now they understood that they were. And I thought well, gee, it was worth coming all the way across the country just for that.
Who made feminism attractive to you ?
I probably owe a lot of that to my mother, who is a strong feminist and never presented it in a pejorative way. In high school, I was already doing my little feminist crusades. I think a lot of women of my generation would have had a similar experience of being in that age group in which your mother experienced the last backlash, the postwar feminine mystique, "a true woman is a woman with a polkadotted apron, armed with Shake-n-Bake in the kitchen." Observing the women's movement come to suburban America, where I spent most of my childhood, and observing the radical and beneficial effects that wrought in my mother's generation, had a profound effect on me. My mother does not believe in being quiet. She's actually far more assertive than I am. I've always admired that about her. She has a very strong sense of social justice, and belief that one should loudly point out injustice.
Did she like your book ?
Yeah. She likes to introduce herself now to people as the grandmother of Backlash. She has always encouraged me to pursue my work and I don't think she's ever said, "Why aren't you married?"
Or, "Hurry up, you're past thirty." She's always been far more interested in creative pursuits than maternal and marital ones. And by doing that she's cleared away a huge obstacle that I think a lot of other women face. Not only is the culture telling them that they're worthless if they don't have 2.5 kids by the time they're thirty-five, but their mothers are telling them that. And my mother has never pushed that line. She never thought marriage was such a hot idea so she doesn't see why her daughter has to experience it.
Do you think that things have gotten better or worse for American women since you wrote Backlash?
I think things have gotten a lot better. I hope they do another one of these polls that asks the question, "Are you a feminist?" The last time they did that poll was in the late 1980s, and it had done a complete turnaround since the early 1980s, when almost 60 per cent of women said yes, they were feminists. By the late 1980s almost 60 per cent said no, they were not. It would be interesting—now that we've had Anita Hill and a series of consciousness-raising events—to do that poll. In the absence of that, all I can go by is anecdotal evidence. I don't know how reliable that is, in that women I talk to are a sort of self-selecting group. They come to my speeches or book readings because they agree with my point of view. Of course, from my perception it seems like the world has turned feminist.
You were just in Europe. When you got home did you feel better or worse about the status of women in American society ?
Certainly on the level of Government policy, a lot worse. I mean even in Italy—you know American women like to think that we have all this liberty and freedom and a more supportive environment than the Vatican-ruled country of Italy—but there the maternity and social welfare policy is so much more advanced. So it's embarrassing, watching people's jaws drop when you say, "Yes, we're so proud that we finally passed this family leave act where we get three months of unpaid leave."
In a curious way, because American social policy makes no provisions for women's needs, child care, maternity leave, etc., and there's so much violence against women here, the lines are much more clearly drawn. In France, for reasons that have nothing to do with concern about women's rights, but with pronatalism and restocking the population, they have these wonderful policies. If you're in the civil service you can take up to four years of maternity leave, about a year of that paid.
On the other hand, right now, because many European governments from Germany to France seem to be swinging to the Right, the United States is in this curious position of experiencing a feminist revival, where women have a sense of hope and possibility about influencing a more liberal government. We're slightly out of sync with the political cycle of our sisters across the water.
What do you think of the way last year was celebrated in the American mass media as the year of the woman ?
I think it really was a slogan that sought to buy off women with a few crumbs. It's a way of sort of ending or truncating the revolution, by giving us the veneer of celebratory achievement, a trophy instead of decent pay.
Did it work ?
I don't think so. As much as those who are opposed to women's advancement would like to imagine that women are no longer eager to press the Government on abortion rights, workplace rights, etc., women have shown no signs of losing interest. If anything, every day there's a new women's-rights organization, a new campaign on everything from RU-486 to the rights of women in Bosnia. But it's a typical strategy in a consumerist culture to offer a kind of celebrity status in exchange for real rights.
One of the things that's so gratifying about reading your book is that you illustrate connections among very elusive phenomena. You connect individual men's misogyny, and larger, economic forces,and expose a whole sexist structure. Can you succinctly say what happens-how sexism is produced ?
I don't think that you can find an easy starting point. We're born into the cultural loop, so it's hard to know where we first entered. By the time you've reached the age of three, you've been inundated by images of proper female and male behavior, and it's hard to dig your way out of that, if your desire is to be more enlightened.
If you're talking about mass culture, 85 to 90 per cent of the screenwriters and scriptwriters who are doing TV and feature films are men. And certainly in the executive suites, the people who are able to green-light a show are almost solidly white, middle-aged, rather panicky, midlife-crisis men. And I think there's this very complicated, unconscious tendency for men especially in Hollywood to compensate for the fact that it's not a traditionally macho job. This goes back centuries—this anxiety among male writers that what they're doing is somehow sissified, because they're writing, not fighting, and then the compensation for that is to treat writing or filmmaking as if it were some sort of male ritual, and to be more macho and more testosterone-ridden in their approach than a man who's doing a blue-collar or more physical job.
So you think that men in intellectual professions are more macho ?
Sometimes. I know this is a grotesque generalization. I can think of many examples to counter it. But you do see this in Hollywood—the whole language of "taking a meeting" and this swaggering and strutting that goes on. Also, it's just the old corruption of power. If you have a desk the size of Madison Square Garden, after a while you think that you deserve it and your ego should be as large. That's part of it, too. I think there's also this problem of the feedback loop, where once an idea is declared the social norm, it's very hard to remove it. So with something like Fatal Attraction, it wasn't just a movie. It became this whole social phenomenon. There were constant references to it, and it became this buzzword that you saw in fashion and beauty ads, you saw in greeting cards, you heard over the airwaves, and that repetition that is so fundamental to American pop culture itself breeds conformity of thought.
What about the hostility and extreme violence toward women—for instance, the "audience participation" you've described in theaters that showed Fatal Attraction, where the men were yelling, "Kick her ass" and "Kill the [b——]." Where does that come from ?
Clearly violence toward women is one of the peculiarities of American culture. A lot of the other aspects of sexism—denouncing the career woman, or saving that women should go back to the home—you find the world over. But this extreme, physical violence is, I think, part of our historical origins. There's a wonderful trilogy—the final volume just came out—by Richard Slotkin. The first one's called Regeneration through Violence. The one that just came out is called Gunfighter Nation. He talks about an idea that other historians have laid out as well, that from the very beginning American national identity was wrapped up with the sense that in order to create who we were as a nation we had to crush the culture that was already here. That sort of winner-take-all mentality is bred in the bone from the beginning.
That somehow has transferred itself onto gender relations, where there is no middle ground. There's a sense that if you give women an inch they'll take a mile. They always have to be kept in check through extreme means. That's one reason why the rape rate in the United States is fourteen times higher than in England and other cultures that are quite similar to ours in all other ways. Violence is part of proving not only national identity but male identity, the two of which are very hard to separate in this culture.
Do you get accused of being a conspiracy theorist ?
I find I do get accused of that all the time, and that's part of the American mentality, too—"Who's to blame? Let's get to the bottom of this and find these three people who organized this thing." I mean, Americans love conspiracy theories—Trilateral Commissions and people on the grassy knoll and all that. When the reality is—and I'm sort of baffled by it because it seems so obvious—that far more pernicious than some sort of plot or cabal is that all-pervasive social smog of stereotypes and prejudices. I mean, nobody says that racism is a conspiracy. It's odd.
You once said that within the women's movement, there are things you feel you can't say because you don't want to step on toes. What are those things ?
I think I was talking about what happens when you go from being the anonymous journalist to being a public figure. In a curious way, becoming a so-called celebrity in American culture silences you. They give you the floor, but then you're suddenly worried about whom you are going to offend. Whereas before, when you're the private journalist, if you're worth anything you want to offend as many people as possible. And that's a very uncomfortable role for me, as a journalist, who would rather, as the Yugoslavian proverb goes, tell the truth and run.
So how do you resolve that tension ?
Ultimately, I don't know if it is resolvable. But for me, I try as much as possible to say what I think and be aware when I'm censoring myself and fight it. It's difficult. I think a lot of it goes on at the unconscious level. In many cases, one is simply on the same panel as other people and one doesn't want to offend them. That's just courtesy. But it's very destructive not to be able to argue publicly. For example, I got a lot of flak for criticizing the "difference" wing of feminism, the feminist academics who say that women are special, women are more nurturing, women are more cooperative. I don't agree with that. And I did pick up a sense from some feminists that, no, no, no, you shouldn't be criticizing your sisters. But we're better off for not putting up this false united front. I mean, we're united in other ways, but by censoring our disagreements or papering them over, we ultimately set ourselves back.
I've also seen a quotation from you in which you refer to your revulsion against the capitalist system—a wonderful comment from a former Wall Street Journal reporter.
Yes. somebody called me the next day and said, "Well, I hope you're not planning on returning to the Wall Street Journal" Although, actually, I think the Journal, putting aside the editorial page which is obviously far to the Right of my beliefs, is much harder on businesses, has written much more critical stories than the average front page of a daily newspaper.
But what about that revulsion for the capitalist system? Why do you feel that way ?
I think this goes to the heart of why feminism is so deeply resisted in this country. On one level, feminism is this very uncontroversial idea that women should be treated the same as men, with the same rights and opportunities, the same access to the goodies that a capitalist system provides. But on a much deeper level what feminism is about is not simply plunking a few more women into what was largely a male-designed set of structures and institutions, but it's about overturning the whole applecart and coming up with a way of life that accommodates both sexes, so that it's a more humane and compassionate world.
Susan Faludi with Ruth Conniff, "Susan Faludi," in Progressive, Vol. 57, No. 6, June 1993, pp. 35-39.
Gallagher, Maggie, Review of Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women, in National Review, Vol. 44, No. 6, March 30, 1992, pp. 41ff.(2).
Gibbs, Nancy, "The War against Feminism in Popular Culture, in Politics," in Time, Vol. 139, No. 10, March 9, 1992, p. 50.
Gibbs, Nancy, and Jeanne McDowell, "How to Revive a Revolution: Interview with Gloria Steinem and Susan Faludi," in Time, Vol. 139, No. 10, March 9, 1992, pp. 56ff.(2).
Greene, Gayle, Review of Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women, in Nation, Vol. 254, No. 5, February 10, 1992, pp. 166ff.(5).
Kaminer, Wendy, Review of Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women, in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 268, No. 6, December 1991, pp. 123ff.(4).
Lehrman, Karen, Review of Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women, in New Republic, Vol. 206, No. 11, March 16, 1992, pp. 30ff.(5).
Morgenson, Gretchen, "A Whiner's Bible," in Forbes, Vol. 149, No. 6, March 16, 1992, pp. 152ff.(2).
Norton, Ann, Review of Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women," in Whole Earth Review, No. 75, Summer 1992, p. 110.
Bloom, Allan, The Closing of the American Mind, Touchstone Books, 1988.
In this book, University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom expounds on the failings of the American education system. He argues that the social and political crisis of twentieth-century America is truly an intellectual crisis. Some feminists have criticized this book for a dismissive attitude toward women and their professional roles.
Bly, Robert, Iron John: A Book about Men, Vintage Books, 1992.
Poet and former anti-war activist Robert Bly was one of the leaders of the men's movement in the 1980s, in which men were encouraged to rediscover their masculinity. This book was one of the critical texts of the movement, providing an examination of what it means to be a man through the story and adventures of the mythical Iron John.
Douglas, Susan J., Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, Times Books, 1995.
Susan Douglas has written an analysis of the effects of mass media on American women in the second half of the twentieth century. The book combines hard facts with humor.
Friedan, Betty, Life So Far, Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Betty Friedan's autobiography covers her life from her beginning as a labor reporter to her work in founding the National Organization for Women and her work and writings since then.
Gilder, George, Wealth and Poverty, Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1993.
This is George Gilder's most well-known book. Considered by conservatives to be a masterpiece, it discusses how to increase wealth and reduce poverty—but many feminists and liberal readers look upon it as a broadside against women's economic roles. Gilder argues that most welfare programs only serve to extend poverty and create victims dependent upon government programs.